Report – The Art of Laughter & The Art of Meaning Making

Posted on: Wednesday 04 July 2018 7:16pm by Chris Colman

This one-hour session was broken down in to two distinct halves.

Part One: The Art of Laughter

Writer, comedian and children’s performer Howard Read spent the opening minutes making jokes and playing games to elicit laughter from the audience, in order to later analyse why his efforts did or didn’t succeed.

Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London then took to the lectern to discuss the (surprisingly little) research in to laughter and its meaning to humans.

Ask an adult about laughter and they will tend to think of jokes, but Scott says it is in fact fundamentally about communication and a social activity. We are thirteen times more likely to laugh if we are with people.  In those instances we are laughing at comments and statements.  Even as babies, we first laugh when we are tickled or through interactive games like peekaboo. 

Laughter is a non-verbal communication of emotions.  We laugh to show that we like people, that we understand them and to make and enforce social bonds. Conversely, Scott said that we don’t laugh if we are uncomfortable or if we feel unsafe.  That is why comedy venues tend to be cramped, dark rooms with a low ceiling so the audience does not feel exposed.

Humour is fundamentally about playfulness, and laughter is an extension of play.  That is not unique to humans.  When apes, rats, otters and dogs all laugh, it is invariably associated with play.

We laugh with people and subjects with whom we identify, or who we understand. We feel like we know famous comedians, so during a stand-up show we laugh and behave like we are having a conversation with them, even though just one person is talking.  The easiest way to make kids laugh is through slapstick and toilet humour, as they are subjects with which kids are all familiar.   


·     Laughter is a social activity.

·     We laugh to express joy, comfort, familiarity and understanding.

·     Laughter is a gateway to an emotional connection.

Part Two: The Art of Meaning Making

Colette Sensier and Cato Hunt from semiotics consultancy Space Doctors gave the second presentation of the session, drilling home the idea that “Everything communicates”.  Creators and producers need to be aware that every detail of their content – colours, fonts, accents, poses, shape etc. – delivers a messages to the audience, intended or otherwise.

Sensier then drew on multiple examples from contemporary media, decoding images to illustrate what messages they convey, and undesirable examples of when the intended meaning is different to that which the viewer receives.

In exploring whether our content is going to resonate and endure, Hunt invited us to ask if it is: ‘Residual’, ‘Dominant’, or ‘Emergent’.  Residual content is stories from the past that have been around for a long time; dominant content reflects the familiar norms of today.  Ideally though, we want our content to fall within the third emergent group, offering new ways of thinking, in a new style, presenting the dominant codes of tomorrow. For example, Black Panther resonated because it feels right on the cutting edge of the way attitudes are developing.

Of course, there is not just one future path, and Sensier outlined various examples of musicians, artists and trendsetters, like King Princess, Dua Lipa and FKA Twigs, who are developing ideas of diversity, gender, sexuality and race in new and unique directions.

We want our content to reflect emergent trends because we need to prepare our kids for the world they are growing up in.  How do we prepare our kids to think about a world where, with rapid technological advancements, current job positions won’t exist?  How do we keep deconstructing the old gender stereotype and eradicate the traditional ‘Pink Aisle’ of toys intended for girls? 


·     It’s important that we draw inspiration from what is happening in the real world.

·     To assess the relevance, importance and potential resonance of our content, we should ask three things:

1.      Are we saying what we mean? Are we using the right signs and symbols to send our message?

2.      Are we drawing inspiration from emerging culture?  Are we looking at shifts?  Are our narratives, characters, settings and visual, verbal and sensory cues fresh and relevant?

3.      Are we positively shaping culture?  Do we have a genuine point of view on how to shape the future?

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Chris Colman

About the author

Chris Colman


Chris Colman is a multi-disciplinary animation professional, based in Shanghai since 2011. Having started life in China as lead character designer for a 2D studio, he went on to spearhead the business development of a major new animation training institute. During that period, he started the China Animation & Game Network,… Read more